In the summer of 1999, my little hometown of Tulia, Texas, was hit by a drug sting. An early-morning sweep arrested 16 percent of the black people in my town—more than 70 percent of the town’s young black men. My father, a Baptist minister, got involved when he became concerned that the defendants couldn’t get a fair trial in our small town.
After the bust, the local paper published an editorial calling the defendants “scumbags,” “garbage” and “a cancer.” My father wondered how a local jury could give the defendants a fair hearing when they had already been declared guilty by the local paper. And then we started to ask ourselves how a town of 5,000 people could possibly support 46 drug dealers. My father and grandfather, a retired Baptist pastor, made contact with the defendants and their families and began meeting in my parents’ home.
Ultimately, these meetings created a movement called Friends of Justice that brought together the defendants and a few other local allies. As we worked with the defendants to investigate the details of the drug sting, we discovered that the operation was riddled with factual and procedural problems. It became clear that the undercover officer had been sent to rid the town of young black people whom they deemed problematic, and the evidence suggested that he had faked many cases to put money in his own pocket. But most of the people in our town didn’t care about the evidence—they wanted to get rid of these people. When my family started writing letters to the editor to protest the drug sting, we were shunned by most of the white people in town.
But Friends of Justice kept holding its Sunday evening meetings. We wrote letters to the editor, contacted national groups like the NAACP and the ACLU, and broke the story down into simple, bite-sized pieces the media could work with. Gradually, we attracted sympathetic media attention to previously untouchable “drug dealers.” In response to the Tulia drug sting, the Texas Legislature passed the Tulia Corroboration Bill, which raised the evidentiary standards for undercover testimony.
In our country, one in four black men is under the supervision of the criminal justice system. In some neighborhoods, one in three young black males is working as a “snitch,” forced to testify against friends and family under the threat of prosecution. The whole fabric of poor black communities is undermined by unjust criminal justice practices.
The Bible teaches that nations can only achieve true peace when they pursue justice for the poor, and that renewed passion for shared sacrifice must come from us, the body of Christ. Jesus proclaims “freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18, TNIV) and tells His followers that God will judge us according to our treatment of the prisoner: “I was in prison, and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). I’ve discovered that the whole Bible testifies to God’s concern for people who are vulnerable to wrongful prosecution, who languish in prison, who have no allies to defend them against arbitrary treatment by police and judges.
The Church has taken up Jesus’ call to take care of the poor and the needy around the world and in our own communities. Shouldn’t we also take care of those who are imprisoned, wrongfully or not, and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves? If we are called to help the disadvantaged, we should help those who are in the most need by volunteering with a prison ministry to visit those in jail or writing our lawmakers to push for a more fair justice system. We can provide comfort to prisoners by comforting their families and supporting their children through inner-city programs where many of the children have a parent in prison. Be the hands and feet of God and extend love to those who may be hurting most.